Analog Pleasures in a Digital World

At first, it was hard to appreciate the elderly woman seven rows in front of us who had a sudden coughing fit during the opening minutes of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” at a recent trip to the symphony. But as I winced through the coughing and throat clearing that sat between us and the orchestra, I realized that the coughing was part of what made that live concert experience special.

If I’d wanted to listen to a perfect performance of Appalachian Spring without the extra sauce of another person’s bronchospasms, I could have done so without leaving my desk. The 1983 version conducted by Louis Lane and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is on a CD that I long ago ripped to my computer’s iTunes library. The 1960 version conducted by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic is on Spotify, as is the 1963 version where Copland himself conducted the piece in front of the London Symphony Orchestra. All of these are just a few clicks away from my ears.

So why, rather than pouring two glasses of wine and sitting on our comfy couch to listen to a perfect recording of Appalachian Spring on our excellent stereo, did my wife Kathi and I, instead…

  • Spend money on tickets
  • Get dressed up
  • Drive downtown
  • Have a drink and a snack at a nearby bar
  • Walk into the symphony hall, turn off our phones, and then
  • Sit quietly in order to hear the same piece performed live…
  • With a coughing woman as an added bonus?

If we weren’t merely buying the chance to hear the music, then what were we buying? This is the kind of question that digital technologies press us to ask.

Analog perversity

Why do we perversely persist in going to live concerts of music that is available to us anywhere, anytime?

It’s worth being precise, here. I’m not talking about rock concerts where some people go to dance while listening to the music. I’m not talking about sporting events where audience participation moments like The Wave can’t happen at home. I’ve written previously about the notion of eventness in moviegoing.

The experience of classical music at home is closer to the experience of classic music in the symphony hall than sports and movies. Digital alternatives available on demand are arguably better than the analog originals (the greatest musicians in their greatest moments) and they are easier to get. (I know that some concertgoers will always fight for the purely auditory merits of live performance, as some prefer vinyl to CDs, but that’s a niche group).

These aren’t just analog versus digital questions: the first phonographs in the late 1800s made it possible for non-musicians to listen to music at home. It’s the effortlessness of digital technologies that makes these questions more acute. So long as you have a connected device and signal, an infinite amount of text, audio and video is always there, always ready.

Why bother with analog?

What we were buying

With the live performance of Appalachian Spring, what my wife and I were buying was an opportunity to pay a particular kind of attention to that piece of music. We were paying to notice the music, to put the music at the center of our awareness, to regard it intensely for the 22 minutes of its duration.

That’s not easy to do because this kind of attention is fragile.

At home, even to approximate the live symphony experience, we would have had to turn off the phones and other beeping devices, put the dog away and hope nothing made him bark, cross our fingers that nobody came to the door, pray that no cars honked their ways down our street, and beg our 13 year old son either to join us or to entertain himself silently.

Not only was it unlikely that all these conditions would have been met, but it’s also unlikely that either of us would have been able to relax and sink into the experience. In my case, I would have spent 22 minutes tense and worrying that something was going to interrupt us.

In reality, it was less work to go downtown to pay complete attention to Appalachian Spring than it would have been to put the CD on at home.

The difference between the potential distractions of home and the distraction of the coughing woman at the symphony is that the coughing woman was aligned with everybody else in the room. I couldn’t see her, but from the noises she was making I could tell that she was struggling to suppress her cough because she was there to listen to the music too.

At home, the dog barking or a car honking would have popped the bubble of my attention. At the symphony, the woman coughing prompted me to focus harder on the object of my attention: the music.

Why this is important for individuals and for businesses

In his 1993 book Literary Interest, Steven Knapp argued that books and poems aren’t literary solely because of something internal to the works but also because of the kind of attention people pay to them. Instead of literary things commanding our interest, our interest makes things literary.

Here, I’m claiming something similar about analog pleasures in a digital world.

We don’t take pleasure in going to the symphony only because of the intrinsic qualities of the music: we also take pleasure in the experience of focusing our attention on the music. The extrinsic context — the symphony hall in the present example — helps us to pay that focused attention.

Digital technologies erode context, replacing analog objects in concrete settings with on-demand digital versions that are location agnostic. The problem is that location is a key component of paying attention in a pleasurable way.

As individuals, if we can be clear about this as we go through our everyday lives, then we can make the right choices about how we spend our limited attention to get the most out of our experiences.

For businesses, it is strategically advantageous to understand that what you’re selling to your customers is the opportunity to pay attention to your product or service in a focused way.

You’re not selling a product. You’re selling an experience.